12.30 AM. October 11, Mumbai International Airport. A CEO of a large Mumbai-based company was waiting, along with his wife, to take the British Airways flight to London, scheduled to depart at 0215. After aimlessly strolling through the duty-free shops, the couple had settled in the first class lounge; from his cushy chair, the CEO recalls seeing a very prominent face seated a couple of metres away. There was still nearly an hour left for boarding and first class passengers have the luxury of boarding much later; but two airline employees had already arrived to assist the gentleman to get to the boarding gate. “He seemed a little out of sorts and his shuffling gait was a trifle odd. I remember saying to my wife ‘I hope all is well with him,’” says the CEO. That gentleman was Ratan Tata. Barely a fortnight later, on October 24, when he heard that Cyrus Mistry had been replaced as the chairman of Tata Sons, the CEO says he was shocked. “What could have been the provocation for Tata to do this, while in such frail health? He just didn’t seem to be in any state to take on something of that sort by himself,” he says with incredulity.
The spotlight is on Ratan Tata, Cyrus Mistry and the venerable House of Tata — and its harsh glare is proving to be pretty unforgiving of the spots and blemishes on India’s most respected businessmen and business group. You can’t blame Mistry, though, for how ugly things are turning out to be. Like his family, this scion of the Shapoorji Pallonji group — one of India’s wealthiest families and the largest individual shareholder in Tata Sons — has been resolutely low-profile. In his four-year term at the helm of the Tata group, Mistry did not host a single press conference or appear in even one media interview. If the Mistry saga is making headlines now, it’s because he wasn’t even given the private opportunity to plead his case. “It is appalling that Mistry did not even get a chance to defend himself or go through the process of natural justice,” says Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education Services and former b